By Rachael Bradley
In February, Cheat River Review had the pleasure of hosting a reading/Q&A with Vince Granata, author of the emotional and powerful memoir Everything is Fine. The book, which confronts the tragic, violent death of his mother at the hands of his mentally ill brother, closely examines the ways in which schizophrenia changed his family forever. Through interwoven personal narrative and journalism, Granata seeks a path through grief, towards a place of love, understanding, and forgiveness.
Granata spoke with Cheat River Review about the experience of writing this memoir, his research process, and the ethics of creative nonfiction.
Everything is Fine is now available for purchase. Find it at your local bookstore, or order it here: https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Everything-Is-Fine/Vince-Granata/9781982133443
CRR: You received your B.A. in History from Yale and your MFA in creative writing from American University. Can you remind me what you’re up to now?
VG: Oh yeah, I’m doing a Ph.D., because I’m a glutton for academic punishment, I guess. I’m in my second year at the University of North Texas just outside of Dallas.
CRR: How are you liking that?
VG: It’s a lot of school, but I’ve always liked being a student, and here we are. I think that the structure of the program is very similar to the MFA in the sense that you’re in workshop, and then in literature classes, and then a grab bag of some other stuff. I think it was pretty important for me to have some external pressure to keep reading, especially after I finished the book, because I don’t think I would have jumped into the next project without having a workshop, or having a new mentor here to work with, or having a new cohort to work with. It’s been really productive in just getting me to sit down and do new stuff. And eventually I hope to teach long term, so it’s been good to have some more teaching opportunities and think about how that’s going to look for me eventually. So I’ve enjoyed it.
CRR: I feel really lucky to have the chance to have read Everything is Fine, and I thought the way you talked about a family tragedy shaped for mental illness was really heart wrenching. I’m wondering when you realized you felt that this was a book that needed to be written, and that your story needed to be told, and what compelled you to say “Okay, here’s this thing that happened to us, and now I want the world to have a chance to see that?”
VG: So I think I started the actual writing a little over a year after my mom died, and in the year in between I didn’t really think much about writing. I had felt that in the days after my mom died that I wanted to do something. It was this kind of like amorphous feeling that things had that felt so out of control, and I felt so powerless in my family story up until that point, that it felt like in the wake of this horrible thing I had to have some kind of response, that there had to be some tangible thing I could do. And initially, I mean, it was all over the map. There was a very brief period where I thought I was going to somehow go to medical school and become a psychiatrist, which was a completely absurd thing to think, that never would’ve worked, or for a while I was like, maybe I’ll go into law and think about mental health care reform from that angle. And all that stuff was just kind of gurgling around, and then really the only thing that I’ve ever really felt that I could do with a decent level is write. I’ve been trying to be a writer since the 3rd grade. But the idea of writing this book felt so impossible for that first year, just because my own thinking around my mom’s death, and around my relationship with Tim, was so completely muddled and constantly in flux that to have tried to do anything substantive in that year would have been impossible. I started an MFA program at the program at American [University] just over a year after my mom died, and when I showed up that program actually thought I was showing up as a fiction writer. So even at that point I hadn’t really figured that this was going to be what I would spend so much time on. As soon as I got to American, the professor who I had wanted to work with, the writer Richard McCann, (and I’m glad he’s come up, he passed away about a month ago and he was someone very important to me)…so he was who I went to American to work with, and I had assumed that he wrote predominantly fiction because the book of his that I had read was a collection of short stories. So I assumed he would be teaching the fiction workshop, but he was teaching the nonfiction workshop, and I kind of went back and forth about, you know, well I came here to work with this guy, I should probably take his workshop. Within a week of being at his workshop, getting to know him, and then trying to do some writing in that workshop, it became clear that I couldn’t really write anything else before I tried this. So it was the process of writing the first essay about my family, because initially I thought “Okay, I’ll write one essay and that’ll be the that, and then I’ll go back to writing fiction!” And it became pretty clear during that first essay that there were so many factors contributing to what happened in my family that to try to make any kind of useful statement about the state of mental health care, the misunderstandings around schizophrenia, the complicated grieving around this kind of family violence…To say anything that would be nuanced and complex, I needed to spend a long time with it, and then write something that was book length.
CRR: Was that an intimidating thing? To look down that barrel and say: “Wow, this is going to be something a lot longer than just one essay”?
VG: I think I kind of tricked myself into it a little bit, because even after that first essay the next two things I wrote were stand-alone essays as well, and as I was writing them I think I had in the back of my mind this idea that this is going to be part of something bigger, whether that’s a collection or a memoir. I knew that they weren’t going to be able to on their own do what I wanted the whole project to do. It wasn’t until about after my first year at the MFA when I had a couple of essays where I started to really think about if I were to piece these together, how can I build them out and then make something that was a book? And it was less scary at that point, because I had those essays, so it wasn’t like I was just starting from nothing. And then it was just a matter of getting enough momentum going and try not to psych myself out too much.
CRR: A lot of the memoir is personal narrative, but I was really impressed with the way that you were able to do that research and weave it through. It felt very seamless to me, and so I’m wondering about that research process, and if you always knew that research would have to play a role here, or if it maybe just started as a personal story and then ended up becoming something else?
VG: In some ways I think that was purely the craft question, of how do you get research into to a memoir. I’ve always been fascinated by that, and a lot of my favorite memoirs are works that do incorporate research and sort of leave it in in a way that I tried to emulate as best I could. But I think for this particular book, what was really helpful in weaving the research in was that lot of the motivation for writing the book and for doing this kind of research was the sad fact that I didn’t know a lot of this stuff before mom died. So there was that aspect of the story: the reason why I was researching now works in the context of re-examining the years before mom’s death, because just about everything that I wound up researching was not something that I was familiar with before she died. So, the process of research… I mean I think researching anything takes quite a bit of time, but I was able to start – and I talk about this in the book – I started with what she had been reading, because she had this massive collection of books on schizophrenia and psychotic illness and anosognosia, and lots of things that were contributing to Tim’s struggle with schizophrenia. So her literal copies of these books I took, and in some cases picked up reading where she had left off, and then I was lucky to be able to get in touch with one or two people who have written these books. I was living in DC at the time, at American [University], and some of these advocacy centers and think-tank type places were located in DC, so it was lucky to be nearby. I got to have a couple conversations with these people, and every time I had a conversation someone in the field, it raised 10 other questions, as is the case with research. So the most difficult thing about getting the research into the book as it appears now was just whittling it down, and figuring out what are the most important things for this particular story about my family – the amount of research that I cut from this book is almost hysterical to think about – and figuring out what aspects of Tim’s struggle with schizophrenia and what aspects of my own misunderstandings of schizophrenia would be most directly useful for this particular story
CRR: I can imagine that finding that balance can be overwhelming, but I love how you moved between the two, and it felt really fluid to me. So it worked! One thing that I am always curious about, and I think that creative writers and creative nonfiction writers in particular are particularly attuned to it, is the way that nonfiction writers talk about real people and real situations aside from themselves that are a part of their story, but do exist in their own lives. We talk a lot about who “owns” a story and ethics of telling a story that perhaps doesn’t only belong to us. And so I’m wondering how you approach those questions? Because not only was this an emotionally fraught experience for you, but there are other people there as well, and I’m curious to know what you think?
VG: I really appreciate that question because I think that’s something that we creative nonfiction writers in particular could talk about a lot more, and probably should talk about a lot more. I think one thing I always want to say when I think about this is that there’s always going to be dimension of this question that’s going to be entirely personal, and entirely based on someone’s relationships and personal history. The way that I look at this question shouldn’t necessarily be like “oh this is how everyone should look at this question”, because everyone has their own dynamics and whatnot. For me, I think the important thing was, and I didn’t realize this right away, with Tim I told him as soon as I started writing that I was writing. I didn’t share the writing with him at that stage, and it was a while until I shared it with him and some of those early conversations were complicated too because he was still in this early phase of these new treatments that that were still kind of taken ahold of him, so it was important to me that at least everyone knew that this was what I was doing. I didn’t want anyone to feel surprised. I didn’t want anyone to feel shocked. But even doing that, no matter how you slice it, I still was creating something that took the most painful moment in my family’s life and put it into my eyes. No matter how you think about it, and no matter how careful you think you’re being, or how intentional you are with what you’re choosing to write, it’s always taking something that matters a great deal to someone and putting it into your own perspective. So eventually what I figured out was the best thing I could do to help people understand why this project was something I needed to do was to describe what it meant to me, because I could talk about my intentions for how I wanted to portray this person, or that person, or describe this, or that, but ultimately, the only thing that I really was 100% in control of was being able to describe what writing this book meant for me. And as if I could be honest with that to the people I cared about that, I found that they were more willing to see that what I was doing wasn’t just an exercise in bringing all this family pain to the surface.
This was a conversation that was most complicated with Tim, and because this writing took years – it was, start to finish, a five year process – it was an evolving conversation over a long period of time. I think because we had so long, when it started to get closer to a publication date, we had had time to talk about the thorniest parts a lot. When he did finally read it, there wasn’t anything in there that surprised him because we were able to go through and bring up all those memories. Obviously, it was still a difficult conversation after he first read the book, but the fact that he is so supportive of this book, and of me… it’s like the most like dynamic act of love I could ever think of. I mean, here is a book that talks about the absolute worst element of his life, and I tried to tell him “look, one of the main reasons I wrote this is to present you in three dimensions and to show that you’re not just these headlines, and you’re not just this one thing, you’re not just this one illness, in order to show a reader that, I also have to show them the really ugly parts.” And the fact that he could see that, and see what it meant to me to be able to tell this story, and to support me in that, it’s just…I can’t explain what that makes me feel.
CRR: Yeah, that’s really powerful, and I think that comes across. I was really struck by the amount of care that you treat the people in this memoir, like the compassion that comes through for your brother and your family…it was pretty emotional. I guess that kind of builds on what I was thinking about in terms of family members reading your work… for me that’s something that’s very anxiety inducing, and you just spoke to that a little bit, but was that a big hurdle for you too? Or did it feel pretty natural in terms of those conversations that you were already having?
VG: I mean it’s definitely a hurdle. I mean there’s a whole range of responses, everything from “you got my favorite ice cream flavor wrong” to things that are much more substantial. I’ve heard so many people talk about this and give all this different advice. I’ve heard some people say “don’t ask permission, ask forgiveness”, I’ve heard some people say “you are entitled to telling your own story”, and I believe in a version of all these things, to a certain extent. But I think the thing that you can’t ever get around is that when you are writing about other people, you are fundamentally taking something that is also an experience of theirs and putting some ownership on it, because you’re using your first person “I” to tell that story. And there are a lot of reasons why people should do that, and why that is something that for me was very much part of how I overcame this family tragedy, was something that I truly believe I need to do to survive. And if I can explain that to people, even if there’s a lot of pain around those conversations, because they are people I care about, because there are people that I hope over the course of my life I’ve cared about, they can come to understand that even though this is something as painful it’s also something that was deeply important for me in this years long process of trying to figure out a way forward
CRR: Shifting into a different ethics of creative nonfiction question: Another thing that we talk about a lot in creative nonfiction is this idea that we’re trying to tell a true story – you know it is not fiction, after all – but we do have to recognize things like memory, which sometimes are not always as clear, especially when surrounding memories from childhood and or traumatic memories. They can even have a way of convoluting some of our memory further. So how did you go about telling a story that might have been hard to remember in certain aspects, but representing it in a way that felt honest and true?
VG: I think there are two categories: there are the memories that are quite distant, like I can’t claim to remember in perfect detail an afternoon I spent canoeing with my siblings and I was 11 or 12 years old, and then there are memories that are very traumatic, and the experience of them changes. Like for example: one of my best friends who was running this summer camp where I was when I went to my mother’s death, when I shared with him my description of how I reacted when I got that phone call from my dad about that, there were like four or five different things that he remembered about that period of 20 minutes that I totally forgot about that. It was like it didn’t even happen. When you have that level of just brain seizing trauma, the things that you record are going to be random and limited. In terms reporting on deeper past memories, I think what we do remember a lot of, even if we forget like the order of events or who sat where, is the feeling that memories elicit. I think if you let that be the guiding way to write through those past memories, if you think: “okay, this is an incredibly happy memory, this is a memory that feels incredibly warm and loving” and then let that sort of fill in some of the gaps and think about how a feeling does drive a memory, I think you get as much accuracy as the page demands.
The biggest question I had about a lot of the ethical accuracy of what I was writing was when it came to dialogue. I know some writers who say “if I don’t have it literally recorded, I won’t write it as dialogue” and some writers that say “you know what, I’ll just make up dialogue if it feels true to me”. And the rule that I had for this book was that if it was anything involving Tim describing his illness in particular, I needed to have it in his words, specifically because I wanted to avoid it all costs trying to put my language for an illness I don’t have into his head. Or if I was imagining something about how he might have been feeling, I tried to make it incredibly clear through the language this was something that I was imagining or trying to construct without his particular words. So I tried to draw on when he was speaking or when he was recollecting something about his illness from actual words that I had recorded from him. There were a lot of moments, especially in the second half of the book, when I’m visiting him, and I wasn’t going to visit him with a notepad or anything…One, wouldn’t have been allowed, two, I never would have done that, make him feel like I was just interviewing him. And in all the visits that the book covers, I hadn’t even yet figured out that was going to be writing about this, so a lot of that is just straight memory. There are some things that he said to me in those early visits that I will never forget, just based on the fact that I had put so much weight on seeing him, and I think even though I didn’t know at the time that I was going to be writing this stuff, like it just sort of indelibly got written somewhere in my brain. There are little things here and there, little things between bigger moments of dialogue, that are they 100% exactly what Tim said, or what I said? Maybe not, but anytime he says something that has some weight on what happened in our family, or has some weight on my relationship with him, I was as certain as I could that it was precisely what he had said. I mean, there’s so many ways to look at this this question. It’s sort of the ethics of accuracy, and I think what’s most important is that when you’re writing, you at least have some sense of what your understanding of the truth is, and what your principles are for that. There are definitely a number of times – and I’m sure this is something everyone faces – where I thought, okay, if the chronology was just a little bit different, this would make a lot more sense, or if this location was a little bit different, this chapter would just you know be a lot more direct….I’m not saying that you can’t do that, like, there’s no rule that says that if changing the order of events doesn’t impact the story, why does it matter how they appear on the page, but I think that as long as the writer is having some kind of active engagement with those questions, then you know the results and the accuracy I think can usually stand, without having to be over overanalyzed.
CRR: One thing that I noted in reading this was that there are so many parts of the memoir that are very brutally honest. You seem to be asking the reader to see what you’re seeing and feel what you’re feeling. Even in those moments that are very visceral and intense, you don’t really flinch away from letting us see what happened and how you felt. I’m wondering if you can speak to what compelled you to be so unflinchingly honest to a public audience that you don’t necessarily know? Was there any hesitation in doing so, in taking something and saying: okay, I’m going to represent this as intensely as it was felt at, everybody is going to see it that way?
VG: As I’m thinking about this now, a lot of this comes from the very first workshop I took with Richard McCann, the man I mentioned earlier. Especially I think that word “ unflinching” was something that came out of his mouth often. And I the way that I came to understand the need for that kind of approach is that the “contract” that you’re entering when you write a memoir. You’re giving it to reader and telling them look, I’m not going to mislead you here, I owe you a certain amount of clarity, and I think of it as almost more as the question of clarity than a question of honesty. I mean, they’re kind of the same thing, but at least in terms of my writing what I aimed for more than anything, was just to be as clear as possible and to not misdirect, to not try to use elements of my family story as plot devices, cliff hanging moment sort of things. That one of the reasons why the day of my mother’s death is where the book starts. If I were to withhold that, and withhold the intensity of that, it would feel like I was trying to manipulate the reader, trying to bring them along with this sense of hey, I will show you the details of this terrible thing if you stay with me. Whereas by putting it upfront, and not withholding the most difficult part of the story, I think you can build tremendous trust, even though it is an incredibly difficult thing to read. If I were to try to soften some of that, I think it would in a lot of ways break that “contract” that I have with the reader, and make it a lot less straightforward for them to understand what my intentions are. Because if we can get some of the most difficult parts of the book up front, I think a reader is much more likely to understand that what the book is about isn’t just the fact or the details of that day… it’s about how we got there and how we lived afterwards. So, the more unflinching, the more honest, the more clear, then the more likely I think it is that a reader will actually understand what it is your project is driving at.
CRR: What do you think was your biggest challenge in moving from essay writing into memoir writing? I know you mentioned that this started as standalone essays that kind of formed together…but once you got to that point, where did you run into any challenges?
VG: So the biggest initial challenge was that I hadn’t really read much memoir. After my very first semester, where I wrote the first essay in my MFA, during that winter gap, I sat down and just tried to read as many memoirs as I could, because I didn’t really understand how someone would structure a memoir…or what are the various ways to approach writing a life story? I think before I had that time where I sat down and read as much as I could, I’d read Angela’s Ashes, Dave Eggers, maybe one or two others like that, and that was it. I’d pretty much just read novels. And I just didn’t know what was out there, and so I just tried to read as much as I could. I tried to focus on memoirs that dealt with a traumatic incident to a certain extent, but I tried to read widely as well, so just seeing a lot of different ways that writers tackled a memoir. I think the question of where this book ends was probably the biggest one I had in terms of planning what it would actually take to write this. I think I still feel this way now, that I could have written epilogue that went on for chapters and chapters. There isn’t a neat ending to this story, so once I saw the way that other memoirs structured an arc and could find an ending place that felt both like a satisfying ending place, but also didn’t try to say this is where the whole story ends, the more realistic it felt that I could figure out a similar trajectory in a similar endpoint.
CRR: Are there any memoirs that stand out in your mind from your intense reading period that really shaped the way you’re thinking about this?
VG: The first time I read a memoir that seemed like what I want to do is this book called Son of a Gun by Justin Saint Germain. I think it will become clear why I felt this way, but his mother was murdered by her current husband and he went on this journey to figure out what led to that that murder. What he does in that book, and what I wanted to do, was to try to represent research as a way of finding an answer to something that might not have a simple answer. For him, that meant looking at gun culture, and looking at domestic violence, and looking at all sorts of stuff in his own family and things of that nature. I mean, it’s an excellent book. It’s something that when I read it, I hadn’t yet really read another book like that. I also really loved H is for Hawk. I mean, I didn’t give a shit about falcons, and I wound up loving everything about falconing, and how to train a falcon. So, the way she did that…I tried to figure like, okay, if someone isn’t interested in psychiatry or someone isn’t interested in the ways that our brains can do this or that, how can I write in a way that makes it compelling, just like Helen MacDonald does in that book?
CRR: Did you envision your audience when you were writing this? Were you writing for an audience that perhaps doesn’t really know much about mental health? Who were you envisioning?
VG: Very much so. I mean, quite specifically I was thinking about me before my mom died, and thinking about what it would be like if I had read a book like this two years before this happened in my family. Like, what would I have needed to see? What would I have needed to read to realize to some extent what was going on? So I think I’ve definitely written this book assuming no prior knowledge, no family history of psychiatric illness, just to someone coming in without any particular knowledge whatsoever. But then at the same time, one thing that I started to realize was that when I was reading here and there, you know, readings that happen through MFA programs or residencies, I would do a reading and every single time, like, zero exceptions, one or two people would come up to me afterwards and say, you know I have a cousin, or my father struggled with schizophrenia, or I’m a social worker…. I see all sorts of ways that schizophrenia can really take over somebody’s life. And it became clear to me that even though I academically understand the numbers around how prevalent psychotic illnesses can be, there are so many people that will have had some type of personal experience with a loved one with schizophrenia, and I had also think about how to speak to those people as well/
CRR: I guess I’ll end with this question: You went into your program thinking that you were going to start with fiction, and then there was that shift to nonfiction. I’m curious if, with your background in fiction, you can see any of those fiction skills overlapping into your creative nonfiction, or vice versa? Where do those things overlap for you?
VG: It’s funny you should mention that, because I was actually spending this morning working on a short story for fiction workshop I’m in! I mean, before my MFA I had taken a lot of fiction writing workshops in college, and there was a big gap between college and my essay…there was about a six-year gap where I was a high school teacher, and I didn’t do a lot of writing during that time. I think the one thing that I brought into nonfiction writing from fiction writing was trying ground as much of what I did in scene. Even if that wasn’t always possible, to try to at least have a couple of anchoring scenes here and there, and to not jump too quickly from a specific moment…So I think scene writing was probably one of the things I’m trying to keep on working on now. I’m just trying to write scenes as long as possible, even if it’s not ultimately going to be effective just to stay in one moment, and to have the luxury of not having to cover years of time.
I think going the other direction, from nonfiction to fiction, I think there’s a level of interiority that I couldn’t ever possibly have gotten to fiction without doing a lot of nonfiction writing. This is, I think, why it’s kind of fun now, when I get into like the interior of a character that I’m writing in fiction… Like this is so stupid, but there was a moment like a year ago where I realized like. oh, they can think different things than me! They can feel different things from me! Suddenly I’m not actually limited to the things that I have thought and felt, and that was just hugely liberating, and then I wrote a whole bunch of nonsense that was probably way too much interiority…But just being able to say directly what a character is feeling, and to not feel like that’s forbidden, but to actually lean into that…I think that’s been probably the thing that nonfiction has helped me with in fiction the most.
Vince Granata received his BA in history from Yale University and his MFA in creative writing from American University. He has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts, the I-Park Foundation, and the Ucross Foundation, and residencies from PLAYA and the MacDowell Colony. His work has appeared in The Massachusetts Review, The Chattahoochee Review, and Fourth Genre, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2018.
Rachael Bradley is the Managing Editor and Creative Nonfiction Editor at Cheat River Review and she is an MFA candidate at WVU.